Kemoy Campbell and the Crisis of Runners’ Healthcare
If a pro runner gets hurt during competition, should meet organizers foot the bill?
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
At last weekend’s Millrose Games in New York City, Kemoy Campbell, a 28-year-old Jamaican distance runner who is sponsored by Reebok, collapsed during the men’s 3000-meters. Campbell, who was participating in the race as a pacesetter, stepped off the track at about the 1000-meter mark and immediately fell to the ground and lost consciousness. As Sports Illustrated has reported, Campbell was given chest compressions by EMT staff and treated with a defibrillator on scene. Eventually, he was transported to New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Hospital, where, according to Sports Illustrated, he was placed in a medically induced coma for 48 hours. (Ray Flynn, Campbell’s agent, has called this part of the story into question.) On Wednesday morning, Campbell posted an emotional update to his Instagram account signaling that he was recovering.
Meanwhile, Campbell’s family has started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover his mounting medical costs. An initial target goal of $100,000 was subsequently increased to $200,000. To help offset the financial burden, Reebok President Matt O’Toole issued a statement to Sports Illustrated, noting that “Kemoy is an important part of the Reebok family,” and that the company would be contributing $50,000 to help him with his medical expenses. (No specific information about Campbell’s medical bills has been made public.) When this announcement hit the running Twittersphere, responses were mixed. On the one hand, Reebok was praised for their donation. Others wondered why, if Campbell was such an important part of the “Reebok family,” the company hadn’t provided him with health insurance.
This is a good question. And it’s a reminder of the degree to which pro runner contracts are a closely guarded industry secret, which, needless to say, does not benefit the athletes. While runner salaries occasionally become the topic of public speculation, the subject of health insurance comes up less frequently. But when your chosen profession requires subjecting your body to intense physical strain over many years, health insurance is hardly a trivial issue.
In response to Twitter queries about Reebok, Jesse Williams, who until recently was a Sports Marketing Manager for Brooks, noted that, in his experience, it was uncommon for track athletes to receive health insurance from their sponsor. Williams added that, while some high-profile athletes might have a special arrangement, for the most part, pro runners are essentially considered independent contractors and hence responsible for their own health coverage. When I asked Nick Symmonds, a retired 800-meter runner, to corroborate this, he echoed Williams’s claim, though he mentioned that some elite running clubs offer health insurance as a perk to get top athletes to compete for them. Symmonds, for example, benefited from this when he competed for the Oregon Track Club and then for the Brooks Beasts.
Campbell doesn’t appear to have been so lucky. When I texted Flynn, his agent, to ask whether Campbell had health insurance, he replied that Campbell only had “very basic” coverage and that he would likely “incur substantial medical costs.”
Considering that Campbell collapsed during an official meet, I wondered whether the event organizers, in this case the Armory Foundation, shouldn’t also be obligated to share some of the financial burden. A spokesperson for the New York Road Runners (the title sponsor for the Millrose Games) referred me to USA Track and Field, because the meet is a USATF-sanctioned event.
“All USATF athletes would indeed receive the Participant Accident (PA) coverage,” Susan Hazzard, USATF’s Director of Communications informed me in an email. “Unfortunately, Mr. Campbell was not a USATF athlete. When elite USATF athletes compete (regardless of location), USATF provides them with medical coverage to cover these type of circumstances,” Hazzard wrote, adding that USATF wishes Campbell a full recovery.
Other major track meets around the world appear to take a different approach. When I reached out to the IAAF to ask about who would be liable if an athlete had a medical emergency at an IAAF-sanctioned event, Nicole Jeffery, the Head of Communications, replied that at all IAAF events, “meeting organisers must take out insurance to cover any incidents for all athletes, regardless of their event or role in the competition.”
It will be of little consolation to him, but had Campbell been hospitalized at, say, a Diamond League meet in Europe, it seems that he wouldn’t be liable for his medical bills. Of course, even if he were, those bills would likely only be a fraction of the cost that they are here.